In giving a historically specific account of the self in early twentieth-century India, this article poses questions about the historiography of nationalist thought within which the concept of the self has generally been embedded. It focuses on the ethical questions that moored nationalist thought and practice, and were premised on particular understandings of the self The reappraisal of religion and the self in relation to contemporary evolutionary sociology is examined through the writings of a diverse set of radical nationalist intellectuals, notably Shyamji Krishnavarma, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Har Dayal, and this discussion contextualizes Mohandas Gandhi. Over three related sites of public propaganda, philosophical reinterpretation and individual self-reinvention, the essay charts a concern with the ethical as a form of critique of liberalism and liberal nationalism. While evolutionism and liberalism often had a mutually reinforcing relationship, the Indian critique of liberalism was concerned with the formation of a new moral language for a politics of the self.
It seems romantic to write of the self when by the turn of the twenty-first century many commentators have declared its death. A hundred years ago, however, the self had a different fortune altogether. Whether it was in India or France, political and social thought was transfixed on the issue of the self, not only redefining its place in the world but also identifying it as a source of endless potential.
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